Postal Service in Jewish Law – Torah Musings

Postal Service in Jewish Law - Torah MusingsI. Mail and Judaism

with the recently announced imminent bankruptcy of the us postal service. In the US, I thought it would be interesting to discuss various ways in which the halachic system deals with and is affected by the modern postal service.

The first and most obvious point of contact is receiving mail on Shabbat. We discussed this at length regarding the delivery of the Harry Potter books (i, ii, iii) and I won’t repeat it here.

i. sending mail

something related is sending mail just before shabbat. r. moshe feinstein (iggeros moshe, orach chaim vol. 3 no. 46) points out that many jews work at the new york post office, even on shabbat. when you put something in the mailbox on friday, you are essentially giving it to the jews to transport on shabbat. therefore r. Feinstein prohibits sending mail late on Fridays. r. Shlomo Zalman Braun (she’arim metzuyanim ba-halakhah 73:5) disagrees. since at least some gentiles work in the post office, we can assume that they, rather the Jews, will handle your letter. I once heard r. mordechai willig will say that this whole debate no longer applies today, now that so few jews work in the post office.

something related is sending express mail to arrive on shabbat. you are asking a gentile (presumably) to deliver your package specifically on shabbat. this is amirah le-nokhri, asking a gentile to perform work on shabbos for you. therefore r. yehoshua neuwirth (shemiras shabbos ke-hilkhasah 31:20) forbids sending express mail to arrive on shabbos except in urgent situations. r. braun (ibid.) and r. gedaliah felder (yesodei yeshurun vol. 3 p. 63) also allows you to send express mail in urgent situations. his logic is that you give the package to a gentile who gives it to another gentile to deliver. this extra layer of distance from work makes it permissible.

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iii. sending wheat

Before we bake matzah for Passover, we watch the wheat to make sure it doesn’t come into contact with water before the baking process begins. the mishnah berurah (453:4, bi’ur halakhah sv. u-lefachos) cites a discussion of the sedei chemed on whether wheat can be shipped by train, unattended. r. simcha rabinowitz (piskei teshuvos 453:13) describes the sedei chemed and others who conclude that wheat can be shipped if it is in a container that is double sealed. but if for some reason the container is not sealed and there is no reason to believe that the container was tampered with, we can rely on the professionalism of the postal service.

iv. declaring death

The case of a husband who disappears in a tragedy is often difficult to solve because he may have fled. among the many considerations is whether advances in communications allow us to surmise if he were still alive. These issues are fully addressed in the recent book, Contending with Catastrophe (p. 55f.). It should be noted that prominent scholars such as those of the early nineteenth century r. moshe sofer were willing to consider this within their deliberations based on mail service improvements (see pischei teshuvah, even ha-ezer 17:34).

v. remarry

While contemporary practice forbids polygamy, even when permitted, it was guided by certain restrictions. the guemara (yoma 18b) prohibits a man from marrying two wives in two different cities. if siblings in different cities don’t know each other, they may end up meeting later in life and getting married. r. yechiel mikhel epstein (arukh ha-shulchan, even ha-ezer 1:24) asks why a man can get divorced and get married in another city. the same concern does not apply. he explains that all the worry is no longer a problem. Due to the reliability of the modern postal service, people are in more frequent contact with their relatives. they will know who is moving where and remarrying, and the names of relatives. there is little realistic chance of siblings marrying each other simply because they live in different cities.

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saw. mail delivery

halakhah recognizes the importance of mail delivery. The timely arrival of mail is not only important for business, but also a great pleasure for personal recipients. people are normally prohibited from working at their jobs on chol ha-mo’ed, the days between the festivities. while there are indulgences for many cases, I suspect that people today widely abuse them and neglect the sanctity of days. however, the compendium chol ha-mo’ed ke-hilkhaso (9:10) convincingly states that a postman can work freely in chol ha-mo’ed . his delivery of the mail is a cause for festive cheer and, therefore, his work constitutes a permitted public work for the needs of the community.

Jewish law recognizes the importance of regular mail delivery, allowing for leniency in urgent cases and delivery on some special days. However, the United States Postal Service is not the only source of mail. UPS, FedEx, and other carriers share a similar status. all of these methods are equally important in the eyes of Jewish law.

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